Lucca Cathedral is a place of legend and emotion. It’s the jealous guardian of the Volto Santo, or Holy Countenance. It’s also houses the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, one of the finest works of 15th century Italian sculpture.
The exterior of Lucca Cathedral
The Romanesque exterior, with its elegant portico, arcades and beautifully decorated doors, warrants a good look before you even step inside the church. Notice the vividly expressive equestrian sculpture (circa 1240) dedicated to the episode that changed the life of San Martino.
Under the same arcade is a labyrinth carved in stone; a figure much-loved by mystery seekers that represents a journey of spiritual awakening and, for the more religious, salvation through faith. On the right hand side a latin inscription reads: “This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete, from which none could escape except Theseus helped by Ariadne’s thread.”
The interior. Triumph over death.
The sacred core of Lucca Cathedral is the Volto Santo, or “Holy Countenance”. This is a large-scale walnut crucifix guarded inside an octagonal chapel by Matteo Civitali, a leading artist of the Early Renaissance in Lucca. This image of Christ has attracted pilgrims to Lucca since early Medieval times. According to legend, it was carved by the same Nicodemus who helped to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, and shows the “true face of Christ”. Christ is wearing a tunic and it’s said that his open eyes do not show suffering, but triumph over death.
This triumph over death is the also the theme of the other masterpiece that you’ll see in the Duomo: the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto. Her marble portrait is so alive and delicate it almost seems she may wake up at any moment. Her husband, the Lord of Lucca – Paolo Guinigi, commissioned Jacopo della Quercia to make her effigy in 1406 and the result is a delicate portrait of youth and elegance (she was 26 when she died giving birth to her second child).The little dog at her feet is a symbol of marital fidelity.
The Gothic style that marks this early work by Della Quercia blends harmoniously with the decoration of the tomb with its Renaissance motifs taken directly from Ancient Rome. It’s festooned by ten cheerful looking cherubs, that in this context bring hope for new life after death.
The Cathedral Museum – this small museum is given over to religious art and includes interesting vestments that have been used during the procession of the Volto Santo since Medieval times.
For more pictures of the gorgeous Cathedral, check out our photographic journey through Lucca.
Lucca, the city of a hundred churches
The lavishly decorated churches and other civic buildings in Lucca were built to show off its wealth and importance in the 12th and 13th centuries. Lucca is often known as the “City of a Hundred Churches” as a result of the many beautiful Romanesque churches inside the city walls, one of which is San Michele in Foro. Visiting its churches is one of the best things to do in Lucca.
Who was San Martino?
The Cathedral is dedicated to San Martino, and you’ll see his portrait on the façade. While serving in the Roman army, this so called “gentle knight” helped a beggar offering him half of his mantle and after this was converted to Christianity in the year 335 AD. He went on to found one of the first monasteries in Europe and became an active evangeliser. After his death his legend grew and he was eventually made patron saint of the town.